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December 11, 2009

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PAGE 22A . HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 11, 2009 Arizona State University group blends Judaism, science By Vicki Cabot Jewish News of Greater Phoenix Do religion and science need each other? Yes, says a group of scholars, scientists and theologians at Arizona State University. ASU's Center for Jewish Studies' Judaism, Science and Medicine Group asserts reli- gion and science are not only a likely pairing, but an essential one. Science provides critical information about how the world works, but it is religion that imbues that knowledge with depth and meaning. "The work of Judaism and science i s part ofamuch larger project," says Hava Tirosh- Samuelson, the center's direc- tor and one of the founders of • JSMG alongwith her husband, Norbert Samuelson, Harold and Jean Grossman profes- sor of Jewish philosophy at ASU. Tirosh-Samuelson, who specializes in Jewish intel- lectual history, is the Irving and Miriam Lowe Professor of Modern Judaism at ASU. JSMG was initiated to ad- vance that joint project. It is consonant with the vision and mission of the center as an in- novative model fortheinclusion of the• Jewish perspective into relevant academic disciplines, • as articulated by Tirosh-Sam- uelson when she assumed the center directorship in 2008. By Stuart Klawans Tablet NEW YORK--Trailing praise and controversy as it comes off the festival circuit onto neighborhood screens, Yoav Shamir's documentary "Defamation" offers viewers a frst-person excursion into the subject of anti-Semitism: a phenomenon the filmmaker often hears about, he says, but doesn't quite know why, since as an Israeli he's never expe- rienced it. From this teasing premise, "Defamation" goes on gleefully to propose that anti-Semitism matters less today than many Jews would The center, formerly called the Jewish Studies Program, includes the academic pro- gram that offers an array of courses on Jewish history and culture to ASU students. Its more expansive reach reflects its commitment to interdis- ciplinary scholarship and collaboration and a vigorous outreach program to engage the local community. "We want to look at how the Jewish story fits into larger problems," says Tirosh- Samuelson, of the center's purpose, its broad purview touching issues as diverse as migration and dispersion, the environment and the arts. Last spring, the centerspon- sored an international confer- ence on the composer Felix Mendelssohn, complete with performances of his work as well as scholarly presentations. This fall, an interdisciplinary conference on Jewish arts in German-speaking countries brought leading historians, writers and theorists from the United States, Germany and Austria to the campus. Currently, in addition to the initiative to advance the conversation between scien- tists and others in the broader field of humanities, Derek Penslar, the Albert and Liese Eckste!n Scholar in Residence, will speak in February on the politics of Jewish and Israel studies; in March, Jeremy Ben- stein, of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environ- mental Learning and Leader- ship, will address the religious roots of environmental activ- ism; and in April, a research conference on refugees in the postwar world will bring together scholars in history, anthropology, political science and international relations; also in April, Israeli author and filmmaker Etgar Keret will present two programs on the arts. The public programs, atASU and at a variety of community venues, are free and open to the community. Timsh-Samuelson says that a troubling cleavage between Judaism and science--scien- tists who do not see Judaism as relevant to their work and Jerks who are not concerned with contemporary science--. inspired the founding ofJSMG. Too, she says, an absence or marginalization of Jewish voices in the conversation between scientists and reli- gionists was an impetus for the effort. JSMG began its work with an initial •organizing meet- ing more than a year ago; a conference in August of this year, which drew 35 scientists, philosophers, historians, phy- sicians, rabbis, theologians and educators from Israel and North America, formalized its vision and mission, which includes creating forums for dialogue, fostering interdis- ciplinary research, and devel- oping educational materials about the relationship between Judaism and the sciences. Presenters at the confer- ence included Samuelson, Howard A. Smith from the Harvard-Smithsonian Cen- ter for Astro-Physics, and Laurie Zoloth, director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University. Elliot Dorff, an ordained Conservative rabbi who is rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and who has written widely on bioethics, was one of the organizers of the conference, alongwith Tirosh- Samuelson and Samuelson. Dorff, speaking by telephone with Jewish News, explained that Judaism provides the fundamental theological im- perative that informs scientific endeavor, while science pro- vides Judaism with essential information for confronting the confounding conundrums that arise from scientific and technological advance. "The classical Jewish un- derstanding is that God gave us the world as trustees," says Dorff. "As God's partners, we have a right and a duty toflx the world and make it bet- ter." Judaism not only values scientific advance, says Dorff, "it supports and applauds it." Conversely, says Dorff, Juda- ism provides science with an ethical and moral framework and a tradition of probing dis- course. "Inevitably, when you do certain types of research, ethical questions arise, and the Jewish tradition has a rich treasure house of ethical insights and methodologies for dealingwith moral questions." They are questions of press- ing immediacy, suggests Dorff, such as those currently before the U.S. Congress on the distri- bution of health care. "How do we allocate scarce resources?" he asks. "Who gets what and under what circumstances?" On the impact of science on religion, Dorff offers the example of the current con- troversy in Israel about use of Shabbat elevators by Sabbath- observant Jews who are prohib- ited from using electricity on the Sabbath. "So what is the technology?', he asks. Science will provide the answers to help resolve the religious question. "Science helps us to be rel- evant," says Dorff. "It helps us respond to new issues." Samuelson, whose book "Jewish Faith and Modern Science: On the Death and Rebirth of Jewish Philosophy," published this year by Rowman & Littlefield, delves deeply into the connection between religion and science, says that science Filmmaker thinks anti-Semitism isn't much of a problem'Is that a problem? like to believe. The glee part is a problem, I think, and I'll get to that. But first, to avoid defaming Shamir, let me be precise about what he's actu- ally doing. Fair-minded viewers will not accuse him of having denied that some people still spew horrendous stereotypes of yid and kike, given that he practically begins "Defama- tion" by interviewing one of the offenders: his grand- mother in Jerusalem. Jews? They're nothing but schemers and layabouts, she tells him, liquor-store owners and inter- est gougers, too lazy to do any real work but skilled in every sharp practice. (Her defini- tion of "Jews," I should note, is limited• to those in the Di- aspora.) Shamir also records, and argues with, some equally noxious slurs voiced by African Americans on a street corner in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" continues to win adherents because, look, you can see it checks out. Moving from word to deed, he visits a synagogue in Moscow, where an intruder had recently expressed his opinion of Jews by attacking some of them with a knife. That said, Shamir is not bent on amassing evidence of widespread, virulent anti- Semitism (as Marc Levin tried to do in his 2005 documentary "Protocols of Zion"). He is in- terested, rather, in a different project, and a legitimate one: examining the moral effect on Jews in general, andIsraelis in particular, of their persistent fear of anti-Semites. To explore this topic, Shamir proceeds in the most labor-intensive tradition of documentary filmmaking, carrying his camera through three continents, poking its lens into the ongoing lives of more than two dozen people and developing the material he gathers into threeintertwined storylines. , In the first of these, he follows Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti- Defamation League. Shamir visits with Foxman's staff in New York; attempts (with often comic results) to find an ap- propriately blood-chilling case • of anti-Semitism in the ADL's register 0freported insults and slights; and then accompanies Foxman and someADL donors on a visit to Eastern Europe. Rotund, bustling and quick to smile, Foxman appears in these scenes as someone who is open enough to give Shamir the run of his office and thougfitful enough to discuss with him the contradictions of the anti-anti-Semitism trade. (Foxman explains that foreign political leaders, receive him respectfully only because they believe he has the ear of the United States government, putting him in the position of subtly reinforcing the myth of Jewish power, even while he combats it.) Shamir confesses in voiceover that he admires the way the ADL director handled a high-level meeting--you get to see it and judge for yourself---and concludes that Foxman is so highly attuned to threats to the Jewish people that he might be thought of as an early-warning instrument. As much as Shamir may be at odds with Foxman as a political figure, he seems to like the man. The reverse holds true in the second storyline. In this part of the film, Shamir interviews academics--in- cluding Norman Finkelstein, author of "The Holocaust In- dustry"--who argue that the Jewish community's institu- tionalized preoccupation with anti-Semitism is exaggerated and that it serves the unwhole-" some function of forestalling criticism of Israeli policies to- ward the Palestinians. I think it's fair to say that Shamir endorses this position--but, again, his presentation of it has surprising nuances. The first time you see Finkelstein, something of his character comes throughm enough to make him a gift to the filmmaker, as a pain- fully spare, frighteningly high- strung contrast to Foxman; but the unambiguous purpose of the interview is simply to draw out his views, and so to advance Shamir's. The second interview, though, is all about character, and it's a catastro- phe. Raging, railing, unable to keep still, Finkelstein sarcasti- cally tosses offa Nazi salute for the camera, after which the action really heads downhill. By the time it hits bottom, you feel that Shamir might assent to many of Finkelstein's ideas, but he could never give this man his trust. The characters who do claim Shamir's heart, and the film's, are the Israeli high- school students in the third storyline: unguarded, boister- ous, impressionable kids from Haifa who are being readied for their military service (in- cluding duty in the occupied territories) by being taken on a curriculum-approved trip to death-camp sites in Poland. As their tour proceeds, you see that no effort is spared to con- vince these young people that for Jews, the world will forever be an all-enveloping cloud of hostility, capable of shooting out bolts from any direction at any time. You observe the change come over the kids as they incorporate this lesson; and if you're like Shamir, you fear for themwand for the people who will soon be in their rifle sights. "Defamation" does a re- markably good job of blending and pacing these complex, wide-ranging storylines. The film's method of argument is honest--Shamir neither disguises his opinions nor and religion need each other. Re- ligionenlivensscientificinquiry, andscienceinfuses religionwith relevant new meaning, he says. "Judaism as a religion is about all of life," says Samu- elson. And science, without religion, is "lifeless," he says. JSMG hopes to attract more practitioners from both disciplines to engage in con- versation, he says. There are currently 70 members. And Tirosh-Samuelson says she hopes to inspire intellec- tual conversation that engages both the academic and the general community. Sherman Minkoff, a retired physician in Phoenix, was one of the participants in the recent JSMG meeting. "Human, beings have both an intellectual side and a religious side," he gays. "We need to find away to integrate them and fit them together.' Scientists and religionists, says Minkoff, "need to talk." That, says Tirosh-Samuel- son, is the initial goal of JSMG. "Judaism has a lot to say," she says. "This organization is dedicated to creating that conversation." For more information on JSMG and the ASU Center for Jewish Stfldies, visit jewish- or call the center at 480-727-6906. Vicki Cabot is regular con- tributor to Jewish News of Greater Phoenix. conceals those of others--and the globe-trotting is justified by any number of discoveries made along the route. But the most appealing feature of "Defamation," the one that really sells the film, is the jocular, somewhat faux-naif manner that Shamir adopts. He makes it fun to think about Jews overburdening themselves (and others) with their fears--and this, as I said, is a problem. So long as "Defamation" plays to an audience of Jews-- the film's own subjects-- Shamir's light, satirical touch can only be welcome. But au- diences of other backgrounds also will be drawn to the filmm because it's enjoyable, because it advances a political critique that many people want to hear, and also (let's not forget those street corner anti-Semites) because its representative Jews sometimes come off as moneyed influence peddlers. Let me be clear: On the whole I respect what Shamir has done in "Defamation," and I think that Jews really ought to have. the minimum of courage required to see his arguments aired. But having grown up asa Christ killer, bloodied on the streets of South Chicago, I may perhaps be forgiven for lacking the full measure of mental freedom that Shamir would like me to have. When I consider how this film might play when we're no longer talking just among ourselves, I start to think that it's no laughing matter. Stuart Klawans is the film critic of The Nation and author of the books"Film Follies" and "Left in the Dark." Reprinted from, a new read on Jewish life.